“The dark ages of ignorance and fear”

12 Aug

This Wednesday was the last day of my internship. As I may have mentioned before, I spent this summer writing overviews of research and statistics on various social and medical issues as they relate to substance use and related disorders. I spent my last morning there researching parental substance use and childhood welfare. Which is quite the way to bring down your mood at lunch, to say the least. Here’s one graph I threw together:

The percent of all children in America living with a substance-using parent, as of 2005, via: The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. (2005). Family Matters: Substance Abuse and the American Family. New York: Author.

On the one hand, it’s great that we are gathering this information and have access to this data, because that is the first step toward presenting it to people in such a way that policy can be made to improve the situation. On the other hand, the current situation is pretty painful even to read about.

On Thursday, the wonderful GirlHack (a fellow NASATweetup STS135 alumna) posted a link to this 2006 article by none other than Patrick Stewart.

There is something particularly gratifying about finding out that people you are admire are actually good people and/or support noble causes. (There’s also something gratifying, though perhaps somewhat petty, about finding out that people you admire agree with you politically.) The article is worth a read.

Sir Patrick ends his article thus: “Violence against women diminishes us all. If you fail to raise your hand in protest, then you make yourself part of the problem.” I think that about sums up any number of social issues: “If you fail to raise your hand in protest, then you make yourself part of the problem.”

I’ve said before that my goal in going into neuroscience was to help people. That’s not 100% true. When I was 18, I wanted to go into neuroscience to fix people. Only in the past year did I start phrasing it as “help” without realizing it, and only in the past few months have I realized what a fundamental difference there is between those two attitudes. Now I am going into neuroscience to help people.

There are so many injustices and disparities within our justice systems and the basic ways in which our society functions that I know of now and never would have heard about if I hadn’t gotten this internship this summer. Even though simply reading about them make me sad–well, anything I can do to help is worth a little emotional suffering on my part, all things considered.

Since this post is already hopelessly Trek-centric, I can’t help but think of another Star Trek character who worked with the downtrodden, albeit only for one episode, and said the following:

Now, let’s start by getting one thing straight: I’m not a do-gooder…. I don’t pretend to tell you how to find happiness and love when every day is just a struggle to survive, but I do insist that you do survive, because the days and the years ahead are worth living for. One day soon man is going to be able to harness incredible energies, maybe even the atom. Energies that could ultimately hurl us to other worlds in some sort of spaceship. And the men that reach out into space will be able to find ways to feed the hungry millions of the world and to cure their diseases. They will be able to find a way to give each man hope and a common future, and those are the days worth living for….

Optimism that strong certainly has its place–and that place is mostly in mid-twentieth-century science fiction, granted. But just think what the mid-twentieth century was like! Things are getting better. There was really no such thing as neuroscience (as we think of it now) when the original Star Trek came out. As Patrick Stewart’s article reminds us, things were much worse for women and children, and of course the extent of the disparities in the justice system fifty years ago is just as obvious.

Hence the title of this post. So many problems today stem from vestigial ignorance and fear, and I do truly believe that further research and application of that research is capable of making the world a better place. We may not be Starfleet (we may not even be currently capable of leaving low Earth orbit), but at the very least, we can save some women and children.

And yes, this is the second time I’ve used a Star Trek quote as the title of a blog post. (But it was so appropriate!) The original quote is “the dark ages of superstition and ignorance and fear,” in the context of the episode “Who Watches the Watchers.” I cut out “superstition” because after 21.75 years, I am finally learning to pick my battles (or at least to pick the timing of my various battles).

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